Sunday night, viewers of HBO’s The Undoing finally got the answer to the question with which they’d been teased for the past five weeks: Who killed Elena Alves? In You Should Have Known, the novel on which the Nicole Kidman–Hugh Grant miniseries is based, the answer is fairly clear early on: It was Jonathan, Grace’s unfaithful husband and, it turned out, a stone-cold sociopath with decades of lying behind him. In adapting the book, writer-producer David E. Kelley turned the story into a whodunit that, at various points, cast suspicion on everyone from Grace and Jonathan’s 12-year-old son (Noah Jupe) to her silkily menacing father (Donald Sutherland) to Elena’s grieving husband (Ismael Cruz Córdova) to Grace herself. But now the suspense is over: The finale revealed the killer to be … [drumroll, please] … yeah, it was Jonathan. “I might be the easy answer, but I’m not the right answer,” he insisted almost to the end. Reader, that was a lie. A lie!
Nobody is more relieved that the truth is out than Grant, who manfully equivocated his way through a series of publicity interviews before the show’s premiere in which he was allowed to say virtually nothing. Well, no more of that. Here, at last, is Grant unchained! (Briefly.)
Last time we talked, you were very constrained in what you were able to say, but you did tell me that you needed to know if your character was guilty or innocent before you took the part. So how did you find out — did they tell you, or did you read it in the final script?
They told me. They said, “Oh, no, no — he’s guilty.” And I said, “Great!” Because it’s fun to be a killer sociopath narcissist. They then went away and wrote the subsequent four episodes. Although, when the sixth one arrived, which was only slightly before shooting, I was kind of guilty, but it was left slightly ambiguous. I thought that was disappointing, and I think [director] Susanne Bier thought it was disappointing, so it was changed to make it much clearer. In fact, it was Susanne Bier who decided to shoot the murder itself, because once you’ve shot that, there’s no going back.
So there was a version where viewers might have come away from the final episode saying “I’m not sure”?
As I recall, yes — that’s how it felt to me. I sent it to some trusted people, and I said, “Who do you think is guilty at the end of this?” They all said, “Well, it’s not really clear.” And I got paranoid. I thought, Is this all about a second series? Because that’s not so much fun for me — I’m here to play a killer. That’s why I’m here.
I was going through your filmography trying to remember if you’ve ever killed someone on-camera before. Was this a first?
It’s a good point! I should know the answer! I don’t think I have killed anyone. But I very much enjoyed it, and I’d like to do a lot more.
You have a line in the last hour when Jonathan is explaining things to his son: “That wasn’t the real me.” That put a new shade on something you said in our first interview, which is that the scariest people are liars who believe their own lies. You cited Donald Trump, and that was even before the election! Did that idea, that Jonathan believed his own lie, unlock anything for you, in terms of how to play the character throughout?
It did two things. One is that I think it’s a very interesting thing to play — a character who’s so far gone in his infinite delusional narcissism that even though he knows intellectually that he did it, it is impossible that the great Jonathan Fraser, saver of children’s lives as an oncologist, star of international medicine, and previously ladies’ man and charmer, could have screwed his life up that badly. So he just believes it could not have happened, and he cannot stand that his boy thinks that of him. It’s impossible for him to have a less than great relationship with his son, and he in turn needs his son’s undiluted adoration, because he lives off adoration. That was interesting from a character point of view. But, also, I had to play it that way from a practical point of view, because if I had been in any way less than as convincing as I could be when I was pleading my innocence, or if I’d looked in any way fishy, I’d have given the game away, and that’s the whole fun of the series.
In the past few years, you have had this delightful, slightly unexpected transition from romantic leading man to nemesis of Paddington, center of A Very English Scandal, and now murderer. Are you still enjoying it? Do you want to do more?
Well, I can see a danger that I get myself into a second rut. Most people only have one in their careers, but it’s possible that having done too many romantic comedies, I could now do too many narcissistic villains. But they are fun. Any actor would say the same: The bad guy’s the fun guy.
Was there an aspect of this that you particularly enjoyed playing — not just in the final episode but in the whole series?
I enjoyed the whole project, but if you asked me if there was one bit of acting I enjoyed most, it was probably that one moment when Jonathan is really himself, which is when he goes and has sex with Elena and then kills her. Everything else is acting for him. That’s the real man, and that was fun.
When did that happen in the course of the whole shoot?
Alarmingly early. Maybe the first week. Poor Matilda [De Angelis, who played Elena]. She’s quite a star in Italy, but this was her first time in America. She arrives jet-lagged, and on day two, she has to be groped and kissed by a repulsive old English actor and then smashed on the head by him. She was such a good sport, but it can’t have been easy or pleasant.
Do you know right now what you might do next?
I’m doing a thing tomorrow, actually. Charlie Brooker [the creator of Black Mirror] has written a mockumentary about 2020. It’s for Netflix, and I am a historian who’s being interviewed about the year. I’m pretty repellent, actually! And you’ll like my wig.